Birds of Paradise & Resplendent Quetzal
Both covet the spot for the most heavenly and divine of all the species. Known in Mayan, Aztec and Incan mythology as the ‘God of Air’ the Quetzal, or more accurately the Resplendent Quetzal.
Primarily located in parts of Central America, Guatemala, Panama, Honduras and Costa Rica these birds retain their magical grip. Being notoriously shy it was an honour and privilege, to say the least when vacationing with my then eight year old son in Costa Rica we happened upon a pair. Nestled high upon the trees in Monte Verde’s Cloud Forest were the most bejewelled birds one could fathom. Adding further to their enchantment, so the legend goes, these birds if caged will surely perish. One Mayan legend claims that prior to the Spanish conquest the quetzal used to radiate song but has been silent ever since; it will sing once again only when the land is truly free. This refusal of capture an ode to beauty and fliberty is one also shared with the Birds of Paradise.
Perhaps its not obvious given their remarkable colours and extensive plumage, but, the closest relatives of the Birds of Paradise species are crows. Current estimates claim there are 42 different varieties of the bird and the vast majority can be found only in Papua New Guinea. Having few predators, welcome conditions and abundant resources afforded these birds the luxury of extravagance in display. Its very easy to comprehend why such birds inspired thoughts of heaven and were taken as the very embodiment of such delivery of paradise found. Early encounters with the creatures by various colonialists came via trade routes often at that stage with their legs and innards removed. This led further to the species mythological status as angelic ambassadors, the gatekeepers of heaven to whom no need of land nor food nor, presumably sleep, existed. It wasn’t until much later these beliefs were dispelled. Their capture, much like that of the Quetzal was seen as an act against the gods and symbolically potent in the minds of all those that hold beauty and freedom as sacred. Indeed it appears these birds are highly sensitive to environment and even today their appearance in captivity rare. This thankfully bolstered by laws protecting trade and capture of such species. Surely all creatures deserve the same respect?!
It would be remiss not to include this famous quote by Explorer, scientist and illustrator Alfred Russell Wallace, ‘I thought of the long ages of the past, during which the successive generations of this little creature had run their course — year by year being born, and living and dying amid these dark and gloomy woods, with no intelligent eye to gaze upon their loveliness; to all appearance such a wanton waste of beauty. Such ideas excite a feeling of melancholy. It seems sad that on the one hand such exquisite creatures should live out their lives and exhibit their charms only in these wild inhospitable regions, doomed for ages yet to come to hopeless barbarism; while, on the other hand, should civilized man ever reach these distant lands, and bring moral, intellectual, and physical light into the recesses of these virgin forests, we may be sure that he will so disturb the nicely-balanced relations of organic and inorganic nature as to cause the disappearance, and finally the extinction, of these very beings whose wonderful structure and beauty he alone is fitted to appreciate and enjoy. This consideration must surely tell us that all living things were not made for man. Many of them have no relation to him. The cycle of their existence has gone on independently of his, and is disturbed or broken by every advance in man’s intellectual development; and their happiness and enjoyments, their loves and hates, their struggles for existence, their vigorous life and early death, would seem to be immediately related to their own well-being and perpetuation alone, limited only by the equal well-being and perpetuation of the numberless other organisms with which each is more or less intimately connected.”